Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait ran a masterclass at this year’s Storyology conference, run by The Walkley Foundation. Called “Turn Your Passion into Productivity and Profit”, they spoke to a packed room about finding new opportunities in the world of freelancing writing.
“Many freelancers complain that editorial pages are shrinking, pay rates are going down and print journalism is dying,” says Allison. “But few are looking at new opportunities now available to freelancers – some of which didn’t exist even just five years ago.”
Valerie continues: “In my opinion, it’s a very exciting time to be a freelance writer. In the past, most freelance writers made their money by chasing more editorial work. These days, freelance writers are in demand to do everything from corporate writing, to ghostwriting, and content marketing. Importantly, some are carving out a lucrative living being experts or commentators in their field.
“Some freelance writers find this diversity confronting. They prefer the set structure they’ve been used to: write 1000 words, get paid for 1000 words. But when you have a variety of different revenue streams available, you can put together a portfolio of jobs – some will inspire you more than others. Some will pay more handsomely than others.”
About Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo
Allison Tait is a multi-genre writer with a background as a feature writer. However, she has also written non-fiction and fiction books. Her latest book The Mapmaker Chronicles: Race to the End of the World (Hachette) has just been announced by Book World as one of the top 10 best books for 2014. Allison is also a presenter at the Australian Writers’ Centre.
Valerie Khoo is national director of the Australian Writers’ Centre. She is a freelance journalist and her latest book is Power Stories: The 8 Stories You MUST Tell to Build an Epic Business (Wiley). After writing about small business for Fairfax for seven years, Valerie is now also in demand as a keynote speaker and commentator on entrepreneurship, creativity and personal branding.
Here is a summary of the main points from their masterclass.
As we’ve discussed in a previous post, branded journalism is an emerging medium of communication used by businesses – large and small – to tell stories about their business, their customers and industry. However, unlike old-school marketing messages, these stories rely heavily on traditional principles of journalism. They are short on “sales pitch” and heavy on storytelling. It would not be surprising to find some of these stories in regular mainstream newspapers or magazines.
Custom publications include the likes of Telstra’s Smarter Business Ideas magazine, Coles magazine, and Netregistry’s NETT magazine. Allison says she’s not referring to writing sponsored blog posts or advertorials, which are a totally different. She says that publications like Smarter Business Ideas are broken down into ‘branded content’ (roughly one-third) which is generally commissioned by the editor to specific regular writers, and normal features, which work like any magazine.
“Coles magazine is similar, though all the work I’ve done for them has been commissioned rather than pitched,” she says. “When I write an article for them, I write as I would for any publication, to a strict brief, but it is not up to me to mention Coles or any brands within the feature. The editorial team adds a box to each story after I’ve submitted, with any specific mentions required. In the case of Smarter Business Ideas, they can be prescriptive with case studies (they must be customers of the client), but the editorial team is also aware of the need to provide balance.”
Stuart Ridley, editor of Smarter Business Ideas, told Allison: “It’s essential to remember that with a branded publication, you are dealing not only with an editor but with a client. Any story idea needs to be reviewed by the client/sponsor as well as the editorial team.
Your idea will be tweaked to suit the magazine as well as the interests of the client/sponsor. Once we’ve agreed on a topic we’ll supply a comprehensive brief with the agreed angles we want you to take, approved sources etc. Yes, there’s an element of ‘control’ about the choice of sources, though it’s not too bad.
Obviously we can’t promote a competitor of any business that currently supports the magazine.” Find out more in this post on Allison’s blog.
Corporate writing can include press releases, writing newsletters, internal communications, external communications (annual reports), brochures, flyers, print ads and so on.
Good corporate writers are in more demand than ever before. This is largely due to the explosion in content marketing.
Valerie says that if you want to get more corporate work you need to “put it out there”. She points out: “Does your bio actually say that you do corporate writing? Is it in your bio? Is it in your email signature? I sometimes meet people who complain that they are not getting traction with their corporate writing work. If you are serious about being a corporate writer, then take it seriously. Make sure it’s in your bio on your website, if you have one, or your Twitter profile or other social media. You also need to put it in your Linkedin description.”
Valerie also points out that freelance writers can get referrals for corporate work from editors. “Sometimes, corporate communications people don’t know where to find good freelancers but they do know how to get in touch with editors at magazines or newspapers,” she says. “I’ve received several referrals from editors at magazines/newspapers because typically they aren’t able to do a freelance gig – as they are employed full-time at a publication – so the corporate communications person asks them for recommendations on other writers. “If you want to be top of mind so that editors refer you: let them know that you are available for corporate work. You can even do this subtly by ensuring it’s in your email signature. It goes without saying but you also need to be reliable. After all, editors are only going to refer people who they can vouch for.”
According to Allison, the words ‘content marketing’ have been the biggest thing in marketing for the past few years.
“Brands are setting up their own websites: LiveWell by Reckitt, Live4 by NRMA, Huggies and so on. They all need content,” says Allison. “The premise is that good content will bring people to the sites where they’ll be immersed in the brand. In some cases, no mention of brand is ever made by the writer. In others, they will be asked to write a properly researched and sourced article, and insert two or three specific brand names into the piece. It’s the online equivalent of the custom publication, often very fast turnarounds and ‘block’ work.
“Agencies such as King Content, Edge, Red Engine, can be sources of this kind of work. In some cases, writers will blog within the brand environment, other times it’s straight-forward ‘useful information’-style articles.” If you’re interested in writing for content agencies, Allison suggests contacting content agencies to see what their protocols are. She says: “King Content, for instance, now requires writers to register interest. This is one of those times that a website and solid blog/social media profiles can be of great benefit. But you need to decide if you are willing to use your own channels to promote posts – and check to see if it’s a requirement of commission.”
Writing an entire book may not be every freelance writer’s cup of tea. A lot of writers love the short and relatively immediate gratification of writing a feature article. Books can take months, some can take years. So if you have the attention span of an ant, this revenue stream may not appeal to you. Allison has been writing both fiction and non-fiction books for a few years. Her non-fiction books include Credit Card Busters (Wiley) and Career Mums (Wiley). She has also ghost-written two non-fiction books.
On the fiction front, she has written a hot romance and the first of a three-part children’s series (released as A.L. Tait) debuted in 2014 (The Mapmaker Chronicles). She says she enjoys the combination of having both long term (books) and short term (features, content writing, corporate work) projects on the boil at the same time.
Valerie says her non-fiction book Power Stories opened up a sea of unexpected opportunities. “I wrote Power Stories because it combined two of my passions – storytelling and business,” she says. “I wanted to research a book that would enable me to indulge in my areas of interest. However, an unexpected side effect of the book has been that it’s positioned me as an expert in this area. So now I’m regularly contacted to provide comment on this topic, run workshops, speak at events as so on.”
This brings us to being hired as an expert. Valerie points out: “If you’ve been covering a particular beat for many years, you actually end up with a depth of knowledge that is sometimes greater than some people in that industry who may only have a few years’ experience under their belt.
“This is not a new thing. Journos have become experts on specific topics for ages. But often they have only really been known in their niche. With the advent of social media, smart freelance writers know that they can build their online presence to reach other markets. “I know that some people hate the term ‘personal brand’. But if you are smart about building your personal brand, you have the potential to create more opportunities for yourself.”
Valerie writes regularly about small business; she wrote the Enterprise column for Fairfax for seven years. “That helped position me as an expert in small business. I reinforce that with my own personal blog. I don’t write about green smoothies or kale chips because I don’t want to be known for that. I write about stuff that I want to be know for – which is mainly entrepreneurship, small business and a smattering of technology. “Without a doubt, that has been instrumental in me getting paid speaking gigs, appearances and so on.”
This is all about managing the social media accounts for a client. Allison says: “Twitter and Facebook are natural fits for writers, but you can also write blog posts and updates for clients on LinkedIn and Google +, and even Pinterest. However, don’t assume that just because you have your own account that you know enough. “Lots of extra research and study is required to get a handle on the constant changes across these platforms – but the plus side is that it’s all out there on the internet and, like social media itself, mostly costs only your time.
There are also lots of short courses available either face to face or on webinars. Find people in your network who know how to do this stuff and offer some cross-mentoring – for example, you’ll edit their ebook if they teach you how to put a social media strategy together.”
Valerie says that there are plenty of opportunities to teach writing, particularly if you have a niche. “At the Australian Writers’ Centre, we’ve taught over 20,000 students, so clearly there is a lot of demand from people who want to learn about various aspects of writing,” she says.
Valerie says that if you’re interested in teaching writing, find colleges that you want to work for and figure out what skills you have that you can bring to the table. “See if you can offer something different to what they are already offering,” she adds.
So there you have it! Seven revenue streams you can add to your income mix. And this list is not exhaustive!
However, it does cover some of the emerging trends in the freelance writing industry. Chances are that some of these revenue streams won’t appeal to you. But if you take away one thing from this long blog post, let it be this: embrace the fact that building your personal brand will get your more work; be open to new opportunities; and your freelance career may thrive.